And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love…
Biographies of poets are hard to believe. The moment they are published they become fiction, subject to the same symmetry of plot, incident, dialogue as the novel. The inarticulate wisdom of really knowing another person is not in the broad sweep of that other person’s life, but in its gestures; and when the biography is about a poet the duty of giving his life a plot makes the poetry a subplot. So we read from the comfort of a mold. The book becomes an extension of the armchair, the life becomes the shadow cast by the reader.
Inevitably the biographies of poets, no matter how different, become a series of ovals in frontispieces. Robert Lowell has become one of these ovals, his dates now closed, the hyphen completed.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
The life itself is shattering. Lowell died at sixty. Most of that life had been spent recovering from, and dreading, mental attacks, of having to say early “my mind’s not right,” but more than drugs restored him. The force that is the making of poetry, while it took its toll of his mind, also saved him. His heroism is primal, his servitude to it savage. Bedlam, asylum, hospital, his bouts of mania never left him, but they also never left him mad. Clinically, they can be listed in depressing records of collapse and release, but what cannot be described in prose is their titanic bursting out of manacles.
All that cold sweat now congealed into an epoch, on the marble forehead of a bust! We look at the face on the book jackets, the brow shielding the eyes from the glare of pain, and we complete it as we dared not when he was alive. To use the past tense about him, not Lowell so much as “Cal,” is almost unendurable. The present is the tense of his poetry. The eyes, with their look of controlled suffering, still hurt. We wince and look away.
In life we looked at that large head, heard his soft jokes, watched his circling hands, knowing that he would become one of the great dead. The jolt that we get now is reading the work as part of the past. His industry was frightening. The head was square and noble, but it was also an ordinary American head, and it was this unrelenting ordinariness that denied itself any sort of halo. He was a man of enormous pride and fanatical humility. He softened objects around him,blurred their outlines, made the everyday myopic, saw political systems as played out. History lived in his nerves, not as a subject but as irrational repetition.
If modern suffering cannot achieve sublime tragedy but ends in breakdown, no poet before Lowell has written so close to his own nerves. The poems of his middle age recoil to the touch, raw as a fresh cut. Their progression is supposed to form a scar, exposure forcing a healing. But often, in the Notebooks, or History, the wound of the poem is left raw. All of his writing is about writing, all of his poetry is about the pain of making poems. The physical labor. He doesn’t sweep the fragments off the floor of his study, or studio, and show you only the finished sculpture. In History you see the armature, the failed fragments, the revisions, the compulsions. He could have settled into a fix, but every new book was an upheaval that had his critics scuttling. They settled and watched from a distance. Then his mind heaved again, with deliberate, wide cracks in his technique. Criticism of Lowell is more seismographic than aesthetic.
His apprenticeship was a fury. In youth every phrase was compacted with the vehemence of ambition. Rhymes were wrenched to fit the hurtling meter. He could not manage an ambulatory pace. Sometimes the wheels whirred groundlessly in air; even when they gripped, the reader shared the groan of effort, the load. In Lord Weary’s Castle couplets barrel past the senses like boxcars, too fast to read their symbols, and leave a stunned, pumping vacancy behind them. “Time runs,” he cites Marlowe, but here it lurches:
Time runs, the windshield runs with stars. The past
Is cities from a train, until at last
Its escalating and black-windowed blocks
Recoil against a Gothic church. The clocks
Are tolling. I am dying. The shocked stones
Are falling like a ton of bricks and bones
That snap and splinter and descend in glass
Before a priest who mumbles through his Mass….
The detonating phrases are more than just noise, although the poem is after “the big bang,” but Lowell, like any other good poet in youth, does not care for lessons in thrift. That is natural, but here the prodigality is maneuvered, and we have, instead of excess, a strategy so forceful it repels. What sounds like passion is not heat but cold. The effects are overcalculated. Every phrase has been worked on separately to look like ease. Some layers are erased, but you can feel the vehemence of the erasures. Their basis is the pun, a brutal name for ambiguity. The windshield runs with tears as well as stars. The tears slide down the glazed iris as stars slide down the glass window of the train in the night. There is a poem in each phrase, but the pace does not match the meter. The first two lines should have had the leisure of recollection. Instead the tears hurtle in pentameter, and the couplets increase the speed. The “at last” does not go inward, like memory, but elevates itself into address. The speed is imitated from Hart Crane, but we can see where the phrases are joined by an iron chain, whereas in Crane at his best the links are invisible:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest,
The sea-gull’s wings shall dip and pivot him.
In Crane, there is one shot, one action, on which the stanza pivots, the gull’s flight.
Lowell is a long distance from it:
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears…
not only in the casual intimacy of the lower-case beginning (it was he who made me drop capitals from my lines), but also in the technical poignancy of this other train poem, the slackened-tie assurance of “The Mouth of the Hudson.”
A single man stands like a bird- watcher,
and scuffles the pepper and salt snow
from a discarded, gray
Westinghouse Electric cable drum.
He cannot discover America by counting
the chains of condemned freight- trains
from thirty states. They jolt and jar
and junk in the siding below him.
In the earlier poem, from Lord Weary’s Castle, the train, like time, is racing. In the later poem the cars of the freight train are clanking and trundling to a halt.
His eyes drop,
and he drifts with the wild ice
ticking seaward down the Hudson,
like the blank sides of a jig-saw puzzle.
The years that brought this difference, this reconciliation with ambition, lie in the prose word “ticking.” It is the sound of cracking ice, of a bomb, of wheels, of a clock, of the floe, fated to melt as it gets near the ocean, and every word around it is ordinary. That is, it is ordinary at first, then it is wonderful.
By the time he did his translation of the Oresteia, an achievement in modern dramatic verse, which critics have ignored, Lowell understood technical serenity. He had blent Williams with Aeschylus. He saw the light on the brick opposite his apartment in New York not as the radiance in Shelley, or the marble light of Yeats, or the ineffable light of Wordsworth, but as light in New York, on modern brick.
Style sits easily on good poets, even in conversation. In intimacy, their perceptions go by so rapidly that a few drinks with them are worth a book on poetics.
In his apartment about to go out somewhere with him, I fix the knot of Cal’s tie. He returns the knot to its loose tilt. “Casual elegance,” he said, his hands too large to be those of a boulevardier. The correction was technical, one moment’s revelation of style. His verse, in that period of two close books, Near the Ocean and For the Union Dead, had the casual symmetry of a jacket draped on a chair, genius in shirt sleeves. He has written about the stiffness that had paralyzed his meter, how he found its rigidities unbearable to recite, skipping words when he read in public to contract them like asides. He had learned this from Beat poetry and William Carlos Williams. Still, his free verse was not a tieless meter. Debt to ancestry, to the poets who had been his masters, went too deep for that. The “Fords in search of a tradition” could dress in the striped vests of “new money,” he would wear his meter loosely with ancestral hauteur.
On another occasion, and the reader must not think that I have a fetish about poets’ ties, I admired, with casualness, a pale orange and brown figured tie he wore. He took it off and gave it to me. I did not fawn on Lowell the poet. I did not collect bits of his clothing like his valet. Yet he once made a terrible accusation as if I were. “You use people,” he told me. It was a night when he was “going off.” Darkness hadn’t yet come but the light was dimming. I didn’t know, as his older friends knew, how to recognize the spark that meant that, like Hieronymo, he would be mad again.
The insult went deep. Did he think that I had cultivated his friendship to advance my career? I was not an American poet. I did not think in those terms. For there to be a career there has to be a tradition, and my new literature had none. A career, like that of any explorer’s, was instantaneous. Did I feed off his verse like a parasite to fatten my own? That I would have confessed to, because his influence was irresistible, yet what imagination was more omnivorous than his? Yes, I said to myself, above the pain, I had used him. But only as I had used other masters, ancient or modern.
In mania veritas. Sing to me, Muse, the mania of Achilles, not the “rage,” he had written, updating Homer. I had never confronted the grotesque Lowell, who struck the terror of pity in those who loved him. If Cal was drowning in the darkness at the back of his mind, it was still an illumination.
My style had been, perhaps still is, that of the magpie. A bit here, a bit there, hopping from one poet to another, but it wasn’t that of the buzzard. I had practised Imitations all my life, and I had given up hope of not sounding like Lowell. At Stanley Kunitz’s apartment in the Village one afternoon, Anthony Hecht, Stanley, Lowell, Henry Rago, who was then editor of Poetry, and I had been reading. We had not come there to read, but Cal liked reading among friends. I read a poem called “A Letter to Brooklyn.” Rago said, “It’s like a female Lowell.” This was a little new. Talk of a cleaning maid would have been better, but too many American writers did not know the art of the insult. They undertook epigrams and it came out gossip.
I’ve described the sundering that put me off Lowell for a long time—during which he went into a hospital and I cursed and told everyone, yes, I too was tired of his turmoil. But I want to record, tears edging my eyes when he invited me years later to his apartment on West Sixty-seventh Street, the dissolving sweetness of reconciliation. He opened the door, hunched, gentle, soft voiced, while he muttered his apology, I gave him a hard hug, and the old love deepened. The eyes were still restless, haunted. A phantom paced behind the fanlight of the irises. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. I knew why. For a snapshot of his daughter and my son, who are the same age, that had been taken at a beach house in Trinidad.
During the breach I had asked his friends, how badly had he treated them? Violently. Unutterably. Forgivably. I never heard any stories. I did not probe. Their shock, the trauma of awful memory protected him. “Pity the monsters,” he had written.
We think of the sanity of John Clare, a brightness between demonic clouds, of Poe staggering through hell in Baltimore, of Crane’s or Berryman’s drunkenness, but the clear and ordinary Lowell—he could recover rapidly—often showed no scar of the recent agony. The mania of elation is a kind of despair, but what biographer could catch the heartbreaking smile, his wit, his solicitude, his shyness?
It is this that has made things so difficult for his biographers. They settle for the easier thing, plot the manic bouts, the devastating attacks, and the agonized recovery. It is the old nineteenth-century diagnosis of the poet as madman. And how easy it is to fit Lowell into that tradition, some would say the natural inheritance of damned genius, of which Poe is the high priest. Lowell was not a madman, or a poète maudit; he was a great poet who had devastating bouts of mental illness. Clouds covered him, but when they went, he was extraordinarily gentle. He had that masculine sweetness that draws a deep love from men.
It is its unrelenting fierceness that makes one want to ask of the poetry, as one did of the man, why it drives itself so hard. Why can’t it forgive itself? The answer is that Lowell did not lie. There was no Byzantium for him, as there was for Yeats, a gold-hammered and artificial paradise which became true because need had created faith. There was no white rose in which all substances cohere at the end, as for Dante. Once I asked him what he thought of Hopkins’s “Wreck of the Deutschland.” He smiled: “All those nuns.” He had written in his youth about nuns, demented, passion starved, but faith had gone. He could have mourned the loss of faith with a ripened, elegiac softness, with melody. But he had no heaven left. He had no symbol to seal his torment, like Yeats’s singing mechanical bird, or the rose of Eliot. American heraldry provided only “the sharpshinned hawk in the bird-book there.”
What this says about the whole quivering body of Lowell’s poetry, strapped down, drugged, or domestically blissful, is what has to be said about poetry written in English from Caedmon to this minute. No other poetry I can think of is as tender, as vulnerable, in which a pitiless intelligence records its own suffering. The closest parallel is Meredith’s Modern Love. “To live a life,” Pasternak wrote, “is not to cross a field.” Lowell refuses to let go of himself. It is not masochistic, this refusal, but a process of watching how poetry works, to learn if it can heal; and if poetry is a beak that plucks at the liver, like Villon, or Prometheus, then Prometheus becomes Aeschylus, the victim is his own subject, the vulture becomes a companion. He never took time “off” as a poet, like some American writers who like to say that they do other things apart from writing: farm, fish.
No help from his body, the whale’s
warm-hearted blubber, foundering down
leagues of ocean, gasping whiteness.
The barbed hooks fester. The lines snap tight.
. . . . .
We asked to be obsessed with writing,
and we were.
Once I told him how much I admired that line of his in which the ice floes are compared to the blank sides of a jigsaw puzzle, and asked him how long it took him to see that. He said, “It was like pulling teeth.” But the line from the same poem, “Westinghouse Electric cable drum,” he had gotten from his daughter, who had been skipping along repeating it. It was Harriet, too, who had given him the line, “We are like a lot of wild spiders crying together, but without tears.”
A writer worries and works away from his fate, and he becomes it. Lowell has joined the “long-haired sages breezing through the Universe,” the transcendentalists, Emerson, Hawthorne. The New England sanity, married to the Southern, the Gothic; the sounds of the sane Atlantic wind in the southern cypress are blended in the soft, prose lilt of the later poetry, the triple adjectives that became a signature of Lowell’s and of his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. But he has also joined those sepia ovals of New England. In his youth they drove him south in search of a more fragrant soil, a more calming fragrance than rank salt, but their magnet pulled him back to his ancestry in the Notebooks, and History. He judged the politics of the world in the only way he could, with a puritanical harshness as fierce as his ancestors’.
Poetry is not the redemption of conduct. Anyone standing on the opposite side of this commemoration of mine, without knowing Lowell, could contradict it from the cruel litany that biography must provide. The row at the writers’ colony at Yaddo, where he hounded a woman for what he thought were her communist politics, is horribly degrading; the shambles of his marriages are a feminist’s battlefield, the first, to Jean Stafford, full of drunken violence. Nor does a penitential or remorseful poem absolve the past by its music. But we have all done awful things, and most biographies that show the frightening side of their subjects have a way of turning us into moral hypocrites. Lowell, in his ranting mania, a full Caligula, when, to use a West Indian phrase, “the power had gone to his head,” fantasized dictatorship. To me these fantasies are not merely paranoia, but a way of absorbing universal guilt as a child comforts himself by becoming the demon that he imagines in the dark. When Lowell’s sanity broke the evils of our century flooded his brain with horrors. Original sin or the political ingenuousness of democracy were not enough. The tortured blended with their torturer, and his brain was one arena for both. Besides, his delusions were both demonic and angelic. Like Faust, he could mutter “I myself am hell,” but he turned one aspect of paranoia into serenity with Imitations, making honey from the bile of his illness.
In taking on the voices of poets he loved and unashamedly envied, he could, in rewriting them, inhabit each statue down the pantheon of the dead and move his hand in theirs. It was high fun. But it is also benign possession. He did it with living poets too: Montale, Ungaretti. He becomes Sappho, Rilke, Pasternak, and writes some of his finest poetry through them, particularly Rilke. His imitation of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” to me, is more electric than its original. This shocks scholars. They think that Lowell thought himself superior to these poets. He was only doing what was a convention for the Elizabethans, often improving certain lines by imitation, heightening his own gift. The ambition that saw itself as Milton when he wrote “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” and the derangement that once believed it was the author of “Lycidas,” both gave us the sunlit sanity of his “Imitations.” Some of them, for me, fail: Rimbaud seems too sanitized, the Villon ballade, thanks to Williams, too flat for a remorseful echo. Still, he had the honesty to know his greatness, to make the great his colleagues.
“I have known three great poets,” Auden said, “and each one was a prime son-of-a-bitch.” In History, Lowell says this of himself. There are no secret passages. Many of them open, fetid with remorse. Like Meredith, Lowell is a poet of modern marriage. In Modern Love, as in “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage” from Life Studies and in much of the Notebooks, a flat, frightening chill comes off the lines, like the look of a kitchen knife. Knife, or legendary sword dividing lovers, “deep questioning,” it “probes to endless dole” (Modern Love). And there is much that is Victorian in Lowell: divorce as death, guilt, the lines used to lash the mind to penitence. Meredith used the word “modern” with moral sarcasm. Lowell’s morals aren’t modern. The guilt of his adulteries, even if he thought his heart had gone cold and was only ashes, was still seen by the dance of hellfire; the woe that is in marriage was not merely modern neurosis as anatomized by Updike, but a burning pit.
Without faith, without a belief in absolution and therefore of forgiveness, yet also without the remorseful terror of damnation, he talks through the grille of his lines like a confessional, a poet confessing not to religion but to poetry, the life of errors that he has committed for its sake. “My eyes have seen what my hand did.” Unlike Villon, he had lost the Virgin.
Disturbing as they are in their domestic intimacies, the moral of the Notebooks is forgiveness. Lowell preempted the task of his biographers. The poems are there not to justify conduct or excuse the brutalities of betrayal, but to make whatever would be said of him and those whom he had hurt audible and open to accusation, even disgust and censure while he lived. In this he went even further than Meredith, or Hardy, whom he admired. What his biographers would have revealed about him, in his collected letters, his official “life” as a postmortem, was made as open as a collection of his posthumous papers.
In some ways the Notebooks are like an index to Dante. We are in a dark wood. But the light at the end of the tunnel, as he wrote, is an oncoming train, and there is no paradise but domestic bliss.
All autumn, the chafe and jar
of nuclear war;
we have talked our extinction to death.
In the large, squat glasses of golden whiskey, of smoky bourbon, the ice kept tinkling like literary gossip. If there were two or three too many in their apartment on Sixty-Seventh Street, I felt like an intruding shadow when the Lowells had guests. The couches and the books in their high bookcases, the highest of which had to be reached by a sliding ladder, were comforting, but not the portrait of some ancestor on the wall, a face with a frogged, pert authority that looked like the British prime minister Hugh Gaitskell. I remember something vague and golden about this ancestor and his horse, but that lineage did not interest me. Nor, for that matter, the friendly malice with which the work of colleagues was dismissed by the guests. Whole reputations crunched out like butts. It was just New York, but with others there, it was a casual salon. It was inescapably a salon, since Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, a brilliant prose writer and the best poet in America, were married. It was midtown Manhattan, but it was also a fact of literary history, like the Brownings or the Carlyles. This is not meant as a violation of intimacy. It is as much a setting for some of the poems in Life Studies and History.
This was when he looked happiest, I thought, in those dusks at the apartment. Also, this was the end of a day of hard work, hours on hours put in in his study, one flight up. Lowell went to work like an artisan, putting in a full day on his lines. Like all great poets he did not believe in “inspiration” but in labor. We know his working methods. They brought on cold sweats, but at the end of the day, usually, exhaustion had him a little high, and the golden, iced drinks had been earned.
I cherish those visits. They are ticking ice and amber. They have the casual and comforting depth of sofas, with Cal’s voice as soft as a fire, Elizabeth’s curly golden hair and her high, rocking screech, and her habit of reaching out to pat your hands with a smile. “Honey,” she’d smile, with a voice as sweet and slow as that substance, and they were honeyed evenings all right. The Lowells made me feel comfortable in New York. Then things darkened. We lost touch, as they say, and then he was in England.
In the darker passages of the Notebooks, a low ground mist, like English weather, came off the lines and obscured the figure of Lowell. He does not break clear of it, or wait for weather to lift, for the clouds that scud across the page to pass and the white to reemerge. It is not willfulness. The syntax of the Notebooks, its disconnectedness, asides, may look perverse, and with each new line we hope for the light to break. We would like the figure of the poet to step closer, to stand still in a pool or shaft of revelation. In poets who know, either in themselves, or by their fame, that they have become great, that, for whatever it means, they have achieved immortality alive, we can sense the marble hardening in their poems, the casual mannerism of every gesture immobilizing itself. A lazy or calculating Lowell could have earned that soundless applause readers give a famous poet’s emblematic postures. Yeats, cloaked, striding in the great storm that is in his mind (applause), the canonical Eliot (applause), Frost in his freckled light in the fall woods (applause). The Notebooks, instead, refuse to become heraldic, they keep refusing to be poetry.
Turner and Whistler did the same thing in painting, refusing the summary of the canvas as an idea, scumbling, chafing the strokes till the solidity and known outlines lines of its subjects blended into the coarseness of the surface. Lowell would love to have been Constable or Vermeer. I asked him what painter he imagined to be his complement, and he said Vermeer. But in his late work, the light comes not from one but from all directions, and it is dim and shifting. We squint through the thicket.
It is important to try to assess this work not as confession or psychology, not even as poetry that proves the chaos of his life, or our own, but as technique. Poets take on enormous challenges of technique, first of all in fun. His friend Berryman’s “Dream Songs” prompted that competition, the way athletes challenge one another without envy. Once caught in this race he could not stop. Berryman had devised a stanza form that was just right for his snarls of self-abuse, his alcoholic asides, self-insults, elations. Shambling, shaggy, yelping or muttering, the stanzas have the jagged shape of a manic graph. Lowell heard his mind talk and directed it gently, but without bending it into a formal structure of rhyme, or the conclusive homilies of a couplet. He simply lopped it off when he knew its length was right. It is the instinct of the stonemason, the instinct that knows the weight and fit of each block, roughedged, and fitting into a structure whose ultimate shape is unclear, not drawn in advance. The style is Gothic. It keeps going till it becomes cathedral, tapestry. Only death stops it. His last book, Day by Day, is filled with this exhaustion, after History.
Lowell wrote little prose, few critical essays. He did some reviewing, short pieces, and there is “Revere Street” in Life Studies, in which the poems themselves break from prose. Compared to Graves, Pound, Williams, Eliot, Yeats, he did not buttress his poetry with polemics, with the politics of his literary platform. Eliot fortified his direction with essays that supported his campaign, his essays were as much warnings about a change in style as they were self-endorsements. Pound, who was hardly ever wrong about poetry, wrote like a defrocked professor. For Lowell, living in America, prose must have seemed like another aspect of show business. It is the one form that is really respected because it is accessible, democratic, a thing everyone can be invited to share. It can drive the poet who only wants to use words in verse, not in explication, into loneliness or to arrogance.
This is putting it too simply, of course, but it accounts for that sense of public responsibility which American poetry has, its manic alternatives of an isolated madness or the common sense of day by day. It divides American poetry as surely as it divided Lowell’s psyche, into the sane (not the Apollonian, just plain American common sense) and the crazy (not the Dionysian, just the disturbed, the misfit). On the one side are the sane poets like Williams, Bishop, Frost, Stevens (a didactic aesthete), on the other, Crane, Poe, Weldon Kees, Berryman. Lowell did not veer maniacally between those states. He did not fear wildness as his good friend Randall Jarrell did who kept his verse as sane as his criticism; he was not as wild as Roethke or Berryman. The wildness, wrestled into a taut hysteria, tight-lipped control, took its toll of Plath, Sexton: it led to “confessional” poetry, to the compulsion to conform. Ginsberg, to save himself from derangement, loosened all the valves, and his scream, Howl, gushes like scalding steam.
Instead, Lowell had a sense of structure, of technical order that was so strong it saved his mind and his work. It could look down on himself as a subject. To have destroyed himself would have been to interrupt his work. He made his madness a subject. The moral strength of this is astonishing. Waves wash and batter him, and he never falls overboard. Even when he ditched orthodoxy he had faith. In poetry. This was the New Englander in him.
The last time I saw him he was elated but tired. He had just published Day by Day. Day by Day is really the Notebooks truncated. The exhalations, the short, tired intakes of his last lines are a commentary on the labor, the turmoil of the preceding books. It peers at the light, no longer interested in great subjects.
History, the title with which he renamed the Notebooks, had been attacked by Geoffrey Grigson for having everything thrown in. That was the point. The poet who never relented in his undertaking to be, even in private, the conscience of America, of the twentieth-century mind, did not, could not, repeat the collage of beached fragments that is The Waste Land. The shards, rubble, waste, were not the subject of the poem but in the mind of the poet itself. The meter of the poem has potholes, the step is irregular. It rushes, rests, gets up again, labors on. It follows Donne’s injunction that the poem itself reproduces the action of its journey, and “about it and about must go.”
Once we are used to heraldic, anthologized poems, we demand of poetry something more than merely loving it. We rummage in the unread, difficult, even failed poems of those whose great labors have grown dust. The real Browning, the real Donne, the real Ben Jonson are not in their lyrics but in their verse letters, book-long monodramas, elegies, and speeches in dead plays. Notebook, as I wrote to Lowell when I read Grigson’s jeer, will remain a mine for hard-working poets. Jaded sometimes by the music of poetry, we look for something else, something hard, complex, embedded: the ore itself. It was this search that turned Keats inward away from sweetness and bombast and that Lowell pursued further and further in each new book. Those who were irritated that he did not stick to a known path, his own path, however brambled and thick, but had turned off again into something even more complicated and lonely, were angry that he seemed to want to get lost. The poems can be infuriating, they are simply “too hard.” But if one, as their reader, learns how to listen, they are, for technique, masterful. And is this not the quality that Lowell brought to twentieth-century verse, the gift required from the reader, of not just reciting along with the poet, be it Hart Crane, or Stevens, or Williams, but of listening? The utter refining of the ear, the supreme compliment to our intelligence?
Lowell blessed others before he blessed himself. The benediction, wild as this sounds, is like Blake’s. Everything is holy, but everything suffers. Light itself is a burden.
In Trinidad, in a stone house by the sea at night, a place where we spent vacations, we lit pressure lamps because there was no electricity. The house was on a small cliff above the white noise of the Atlantic, and once the salty darkness had set in and the trees went into the night, the hiss of the gas lanterns was like a far surf. The light from the hung lanterns made a wide ring of huge shadows, dividing our faces sharply into bright and dark like old paintings. The night air was salt, damp, and full of the steady noise of the sea; and when I think of my family there, our cook, Lizzie and Harriet, my son Peter and my wife Margaret, it is always by the light of a phrase in Pasternak’s poem about women sewing. “Two women, by a Svetlan lamp’s reflection / among its heavy burdens beam and gleam.” In such windy places the light made by fuel lamps is both a burden and a benediction.
We had invited the Lowells to spend a weekend there with us. They were going to Brazil. Lowell had just published Imitations. When I think of his book I think of the sea, the night, the gas lamp, my family, then, near the ocean. He showed me the poems and asked me my opinion of them. The honor I felt before his humility remains. He did this with many people. I admired his adaptation of Rilke’s poem “Homecomings”—“The terrible Egyptian mater-familias” sitting like Madame Recamier on her tomb lid, the substitution of a sarcophagus for a sofa, and the daring phrase, “her breasts spread apart like ox-horns.” “Are these Rilke?” I asked him. “No,” he said, “two stanzas in there are mine.” He looked pleased by my question.
To purists or scholars the “Imitations” were insolence, violation, pride. But after Imitations Lowell had reached a happiness in his work in which all poetry was his. He had made the body of literature his body, all styles his style, every varying voice his own. The “Imitations” were not appropriations, but simply a rereading of literature in his own soft accent. I remember him watching me in the half-darkness, in one of the used-up armchairs of the beach house. I remember feeling that he had given me them to read not for my admiration, but for a pleasure as soft, as dim, as companionable as the darkness.
I was at the Chelsea Hotel in September 1977 when a friend called to say that Cal had died. I felt more irritation than shock. Death felt like an interruption, an impudence. The voice was immortal in the poems and others after me would hear it. In his last book, Day by Day, he had made exhaustion inspiration. He had married often but his muse was not widowed. He had been faithful to her in sickness and in health that was generally convalescence. To the last he refused to be embalmed by fame:
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
Something imagined, not recalled?
. . .
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination….
March 1, 1984